Are you the kind person that wonders if you could change the world? Do you wonder if there is some smart idea that humanity has just not thought of yet that will make things better for all? Do you feel it might be right in front of us, so obvious that it is unnoticed? Would you answer a newspaper ad that demanded a person who wants to save the world should only apply? The protagonist of Daniel Quinn’s novel Ishmael is that type of person, a disillusioned do-gooder, and he answers an add that reads,‘TEACHER seeks pupil. Must have an earnest desire to save the world. Apply in person.’ What he finds when he does answer the ad is a very empty office space with a very large gorilla, chewing on some leafy goodness. Only a window of glass separates him and his massive cousin. But, before he can walk out the door the gorilla speaks to him telepathically.
The protagonist, for Quinn never names him, and the gorilla, Ishmael, begin a conversation which will lead the man to a deeper understanding of the world he lives on. Their exchange is Socratic in form, in other words, Quinn writes mostly dialogue between the two. Their conversation takes place over many days with the man and gorilla revisiting points made earlier. It is sometimes a lecture, given by this Confucian ape, for he speaks then asks questions and forces the man to think and answer for himself through the gauze of his preconceived notions.
What is it they are talking about? Ishmael is trying to teach the man that his worldview is inherently destructive. He teaches him how the human cultures have always been split in two, with Takers and Leavers. These Takers are as bad as they sound, taking all around them for their own benefit. The Takers have constructed various, but all similar, cultures that explain away their greed, that justify their manifest destinies. While the leavers have suffered in their wake, being pushed to extinction and drowned under the sounds of progress. If you are at all an empathic person you will want to identify with the Leavers, even think yourself one. Rest assured, if you are reading this, you are a Taker.
I will not risk saying any more about their discussion, for it unfolds eloquently under Quinn’s care and my blundering attempts to explain it would destroy the joy of being a fly on Ishmael’s wall. I will say it is a must read for anyone who feels their worldview is a cheaply made, hallowed out puzzle, doled out to them in pieces as they come to each predetermined stage of modern nuclear life. I will recommend this to anyone who believes that true change starts when the mind is changed, for that is Ishmael’s most important point. We have been viewing our planet and the life on it in the wrong way, in a destructive way, in an ultimately doomed way. We will not be able to pull out of this downward spiral of decay until we shift our major paradigms. Not until we change our minds. I would recommend this book to anyone who asks, with life destroyed for profit, what hope is there for us.